Monday 14 September 2009

Methanol and Magners

One event I look forward to each year is The Brighton Speed Trials. First run in 1903 this makes it one of the oldest motor 'sport' events in Britain. But it's the location that absolutely confirms it. Madeira Drive runs from Brighton's Palace Pier to Black Rock, parallel to the sea and is owned by Brighton Corporation - indeed it was originally surfaced specifically to allow straight line racing there. On this particular Saturday in September the road is closed from early morning until 6.00pm in the evening when it must, upon pain of mayoral discipline, be re-opened for normal traffic. By 8.00am people are already crowding the railings high above the track for a free days' spectating. It's not there you want to be though. Pay up and look big! a ticket will take you wherever you want to go within reason but it's the only way to really soak up the atmosphere. An unlikely assortment of vehicles attempt their fastest times over a standing start quarter mile - it used to be over a kilometre but that got too fast and what with its being an ordinary road, it's now 440 yards in old money. There are modern cars, racing cars, sports cars and vintage cars - then there are the motorcycles, both new and of great antiquity, which for my money provide the highpoint of the day with their ludicrously fast times, spectacular burnouts and gorgeous aroma of Castrol 'R' vegetable oil. Within the pit area vehicles are lined up either side of the road and the drivers and crews are as interesting and varied as the machinery. The immensely wealthy with their exotic cars chat easily with the craggy old rockers and their antedeluvian motorcycles. Indeed with the latter it is difficult to gauge the cross-over between man and machine...oil, petrol, grease, baggy old racing leathers and whispy grey hair combine to produce a kind of all-in-one effect of rider and 'bike. A push start from a smartly dressed young man produces a bark and calico-tearing noise from a 1930's Rudge whilst the elderly pilot acknowledges the assistance with a cheery wave. Meanwhile further up the paddock, retired art teacher, James Augustus Tiller (his parents named him for Augustus John) fires up his tatty orange 1950's Allard sports car - this one's different though and stuffed full of the finest American speed parts you can shake a spangled stick at - the earth shakes as the rev counter rises and falls to the rhythm of his right foot. Soon he'll be attacking the tarmac for his umpteenth Speed Trials and probably winning his class yet again. Rumour has it that the car is already willed to an animal charity to be sold after his death - who knows? the whole thing is an enigma. He's a charming man and willing to answer any questions the young petrol heads queue up to put to him. The white banner proclaiming Start line is stretched above Madeira Drive as I walk towards the 'launch site'. The cars are forming an orderly queue awaiting their 15 seconds or so of a competitor you'll be lucky to see much more than a total of one and a half minutes of track time throughout the long day! So why on earth is this event always over-subscribed? - quite simply, there's nothing else remotely like it; virtually nowhere else in England do they allow the once-common practice of closing the highway for such a race...that and its unique position. Raffish, naughty old Brighton, the tart with a heart, seems ideal. The smell of fish and chips and vinegar pervade the atmosphere vying for your olfactory attention with the smell of burning methanol and hot oil. Fairground music comes tumbling across the sea from the Palace Pier and a child loses his helium balloon whilst mother chomps into an unfeasibly large hot dog; and everywhere urgent scurrying, scratching of heads and barked knuckles whilst performing a hasty plug change, pouring of petrol, wiping of googles, bravado chat about past runs and every, every year I say the same thing - 'I must have a go before I die'. Of course I never do and probably never will, but as the Magners begins to take hold I see myself crouched over the tank of my motorcycle gunning the throttle, my eyes fixed steadily on Black Rock, I bring the engine to a crescendo, drop the clutch and I'm gone. Unlike TE Lawrence who also loved such things I will never write 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom'.